As states across the nation move forward with re-opening plans and promise of recovery is on the horizon, the impacts of COVID-19 are still fresh on the minds of many in the food system. While “panic mode” may have subsided, the crisis is far from over.
The industry is still feeling the affects of near non-existent foodservice markets; growing numbers of COVID-19 outbreaks in processing facilities; dramatically new shopping patterns; and millions of Americans out of work and newly food-insecure. While these issues are real and significant, the impacts may be even further reaching.
Food Foresight – a trends intelligence system orchestrated by Nuffer, Smith, Tucker and the California Institute of Food and Agricultural Research at the University of California, Davis — was founded on the premise of looking beyond today to help partners manage or even shape change. To that end, the Food Foresight panel outlines four long-term implications to the current crisis.
#1: A DAY OF RECKONING IS COMING
Increased public scrutiny of companies in all sectors has been an ongoing trend, as Americans are more skeptical and distrustful than ever, and simultaneously seek to align with — and buy products from — companies and brands they believe share their world view. At the onset of the crisis, this level of discernment may have been put on the back burner as people filled their shopping carts with whatever was available in fear of going without. However, a day of reckoning is on the horizon.
“There will come a time not far down the road when agriculture – like all organizations – will be asked the equivalent of ‘what did you do in the war, daddy?’,” said sociologist and Food Foresight panelist Larry Kaagan. “From the ability to keep shelves stocked, to how well organizations protected their employees from illness, and what they did – or didn’t do – to help feed the hungry will be called into question.”
How agriculture responds to the current crisis could cause a society wide re-thinking of the agri-food chain. Previous Food Foresight reports advocate for a clearly defined organizational purpose that showcases the benefits of each organization to people and/or society as a whole. To be effective, that purpose needs to be more than words on paper, and the time to put words into action is now. Additionally, a company’s values should guide an organization in good and bad times. Now is no exception, and the pressure to demonstrate purpose and values in action may be greater than ever.
#2: GENERATIONAL SCARRING WILL REAR ITS HEAD FOR YEARS TO COME
Those who lived through the Great Depression were later known to collect everything from rubber bands to jars and containers knowing they could be re-used. People living through the current crisis facing shortage and anxiety will likely have their own crosses to bear. Conflicting accounts early on about the severity of the crisis, real and projected shortfalls of the healthcare system and widely disparate guidelines issued by leaders and different agencies at the federal, state and local government levels may have long-lasting impacts on who and what information people trust.
One area that may be especially meaningful is the perception of science. For several years, the Food Foresight panel has tracked a downward trust spiral of science as an institution. Food Foresight panelist and professor of nutrition at UC Davis Carl Keen worries that science will “take it on the chin, as frustrations grow that society isn’t getting the answers they have come to rely on from science,” said Keen. Other observers see science as providing an opportunity to be the hero getting us through current events and demonstrating beneficial impact on health and wellbeing, if the fruits of the scientific work can separate itself from, and rise above, partisan political discussions.
While some impacts can be hard to articulate, others — like the long-term economic consequences — will be easier to showcase. “This is the most shocking recession we’ve ever seen, and the impact of the shutdown will exceed the impact of the disease itself,” said Food Foresight panelist and economist Dan Sumner. “Generations of people will be paying back the government debt and their responses to this burden are unknown.”
#3: HOW PEOPLE SHOP IS FOREVER CHANGED
Much has been written about restaurant and foodservice markets gone dark almost overnight. The results have been millions out of work, shuttered doors and fields plowed under, milk dumped, and other goods destroyed as well-intentioned farmers have no home for their perishables. Farmers and foodservice distributors are shifting to new markets, some with success while others fall flat, but go down trying. What’s yet to be seen is the long-term impact of these changes to the foodservice market, along with massive shifts in retail. On the foodservice front, many restaurants won’t recover. Americans, who had been accustomed to dining out and daily trips to the corner store, have changed their shopping habits entirely, representing a fundamental and long-lasting shift from foodservice to retail. Consumers will continue to look for meal kits and meal solutions to satisfy their needs and desires to cook from home.
“The pandemic is causing major jolts in the way consumers acquire and use food products, resulting in a series of unanticipated changes rippling through the food system,” said Food Foresight panelist and Brick Meets Click founder Bill Bishop. “COVID-19 has broken down brand loyalties and accelerated the adoption of online grocery shopping, and we anticipate these impacts will last over time.”
The established relationships between premium brands and private label products have already begun to shift, as consumers realize private labels are as good as premium advertised products. The result is a significant shift in spending, with all players needing to re-learn how to be successful in the new world order. The shift to online shopping reduces the importance of merchandising opportunities in-store and increases the importance of communicating with consumers online. What’s more, Bishop says, continuing concern over personal health and safety will change the way products are packaged, displayed and promoted in brick and mortar.
#4: AGILITY AND FLEXIBILITY ARE PARAMOUNT
Much of the last several decades has been focused on the policies, practices and investments which aim to increase efficiencies in the food system. The result has been specialization, consolidations, streamlining and massive investments in infrastructures designed to produce, harvest, pack and transport food quickly and inexpensively to consumers across the globe.
“These highly tuned, incredibly efficient systems can outperform other management systems under steady-state conditions — and we are no longer in a steady state,” said SureHarvest President Jeff Dlott. “Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, climate change had already been challenging systems designed in the name of efficiency, and the current crisis has upended them altogether showcasing their weaknesses.”
Moving forward, the name of the game is going to be flexibility as an era of dramatic shifts in production, processing, consumer behavior, public expectation and a myriad of other factors come upon us. This flexibility may manifest itself in several ways including processing, sales channels and markets, work environment and schedules, and financing for farmers and agri-food companies.
The exponential growth in people using their computers for virtual happy hours and birthday parties or to connect with grandma or grandpa; or visiting drive-in theaters for entertainment, church services or graduation ceremonies demonstrates that people still desire connection with one another and the world around us. Similarly, people still need food and desire food experiences, creating opportunity for those who are flexible, agile and adopt an innovator’s mindset. Combined with demonstrating purpose and values, while recognizing the impacts of the crisis on customers and consumers, will lead to something we all desire: resiliency.
Tucker is chief strategic counsel and Siles is president and partner at Nuffer, Smith, Tucker, a public relations and strategic planning consultancy headquartered in San Diego.